I selected Mo Yan‘s “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” for my book group without first reading it. I had read his “Life and death are wearing me out” and a collection of short stories before. I very much enjoyed them and respected the author not only as a writer but also as a social critic. I was selfish in selecting a book I had not read.
Three weeks into the month, I found myself hardly going over a third of the book, despite shifting from English to Chinese and back again, for a change of flavor and style. I found the narrative jumpy, the stories sounded more like high metaphor or tall tales than reality, and the cruelty raw and hard to take. I pressed on since I felt responsible in leading the discussion. I got more into it when the narrative turned to contemporary China and could hardly put it down toward the last part.
I still need more time to digest and put my thoughts together. I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, the women in Shangguan’s family, from grandmother, mother, to the eight daughters, every one of them was strong in her own rights, and every one died horribly; and all the men in the family, from grandfather, father, to Jintong, were weak or never grew up, though there were heroic male characters such as Sima Ku and Bird Han, who all died tragically.
What’s most shocking to me is the presentation of each era, from the 1930s when Japan invaded China and brutally killed so many people, including those in the Shangguan family, a mere reflection of the time in China, the land reform, with all the excessive killings, the famine when so many people starved to death, the ridicule of faked crying about the bitter past (while life at the present was just as hard and bitter), the persecution during the Cultural Revolution, to the corruption of the newly rich and those in power, every era dark, and “mother”, a representative of ordinary people (resilient yet powerless), suffered through each and every one! The story hit me in the core, heavy and hard. I found it difficult to breathe and swallow sometimes, especially when I realize how much truth it presented!
The book is not easy to read, but definitely worth the time and effort. I look forward to my fellow book group members’ opinion this Sunday.
Jian Ping, author of Mulberry Child: A Memoir of China, which has been developed into a feature-length award-winning film by Susan Morgan Cooper and is narrated by Jacqueline Bisset. For more information, visit www.mulberrychildmovie.com.